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A good teacher stays with you for decades

26 February 2017, The Sunday Times​ Education Blog

Headteachers have many and various responsibilities, and most of us feel them sharply. It is imperative for a head to have, and to some extent to personify, an educational vision and a social mission that are understood across the entire school.

The admission of pupils, the balancing of the books, the planning and maintenance of buildings are also ultimately the head’s responsibility, though they may be delegated and shared. However, there is one responsibility which is even more important than these: the recruitment, retention and promotion of teachers. Appointing and nurturing good teachers is my most important role.

Michael Oakeshott had it right in his essay Education: the Engagement and its Frustration (1972), when he wrote: “The only condition for a good school, when all is said and done, is that there be good teachers.”

I have found myself reflecting on my own favourite and best teachers of late. Perhaps it’s “Forty Years On” syndrome.

It strikes me that many of the most revered teachers of the 1970s would find it tough to adapt to the modern classroom and to go through the hoops that every school and many another agency sets for teachers today. And yet, on further reflection, the essence of good teaching remains what is was.

My favourite teacher was an English teacher, JP “Masher” Mulholland. He inspired a generation of us to read deeply and to think, speak and write clearly. He would not enjoy the strictures of the 21st-century classroom. He was eccentric and maverick even then, in more spacious times – and yet, as I look back, I realise that he fulfilled every one of the conditions of a good teacher as I’d define them for 2017.

The good teacher knows his or her subject, and loves it.

The good teacher can transmit a passion for that subject to many, if not all, pupils, and create an aspiration to do well, even among those with less aptitude for their subject.

A good teacher needs to serve beyond the classroom, as coach, mentor or editor or leading light of a club or activity.

And whether a teacher declares that he or she wants to follow a pastoral or an academic path, the good teacher is always likely to be a good tutor; to be able to get alongside young people and bring out the best in them; to enable them to fulfil their potential, to question and to engage.

Masher Mulholland loved his subject and could transmit that love. I was not alone in a class of 24 grammar school boys who, being set the task of writing a short story that built on the plot of CS Forester’s The Gun, contrived to deliver something nearer to a three-volume novel.

Masher served our school well beyond the classroom too, as an enthusiastic football coach. At a time when most PE teachers simply wore an acrylic tracksuit, he would take charge of an inter-school match in a formal black referee’s kit, complete with FA badge sewn into the breast pocket. But this didn’t mean he felt the need to ever step beyond the centre circle, from where he directed play. No visiting coach ever complained, although offside decisions were often open to dispute. He was a character who commanded respect.

I realise now, as I didn’t then, what a keen pastoral sensibility he possessed. Once, late on a Friday afternoon, I mocked his Geordie accent. I’ve never forgotten the look he gave me; no other punishment was necessary. And I recall the Monday morning when he chastised us all for our discourtesy towards a young teacher. Everyone in that class felt ashamed of his behaviour. I would like to believe that his censure had a direct impact on many of us and influenced our treatment of vulnerable people in the years that followed.

From Masher Mulholland I learned of the vampire words and phrases that suck the blood from the English language: got, get, nice (when misused to mean appealing), such as, and et cetera. So, for example, you don’t get off the bus, you alight from it; you don’t get a cold, you catch or contract one. This wasn’t the affected avoidance of good old anglo-saxon, but a way to urge his pupils to enjoy using words clearly and relevantly – and it worked.

All this can be expressed another way. I want to encourage every member of my own common room to become “the complete teacher” and engage in five activities: that is, I want them to teach, tutor, mentor or coach, study or research, and serve, in the sense of engaging with the school’s charitable or outreach work.

And I cannot stop myself dividing the teachers I employ into three categories. There are those for whom being a teacher is simply a job. That might mean they have a nine-to-five mentality or that, while competent in the delivery of their subjects, they offer very little beyond the classroom.

Then there are those for whom teaching is a profession. These are teachers in a hurry for promotion. They will do what they need to do to get on, to prove that they should be made year heads or leaders of departments, but sometimes you pick up that the impact of their actions on their pupils means less to them than it should.

However, it is the third group of teachers who will be remembered by their pupils 40 years from now – those for whom teaching is a vocation. They tend not to count the cost of what they do but to know that everything they offer, in all its different settings, will help their charges and afford them a due sense of professional and personal satisfaction. A school with a critical mass of these teachers is a happy place.

I’m tempted to say that the vocation of teaching is the oldest profession, bar none. And perhaps the best job in the world, for those to whom it comes naturally.

Teaching was a vocation for JP Mulholland. He appeared to us when we were teenagers as someone as old as Methuselah, but we came back from one summer holiday to receive the shocking news that he had died at (if memory serves me right) the age of 45. However, I’m probably not alone in spending the next four decades acting on his best lessons.

Dr Joe Spence

The Sunday Times Education Blog
A good teacher stays with you for decades